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fingerpainting and forgiveness

FingerpaintSparked by discussion about the (not unusual) use of the general confession in the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, folks like Kathryn of Good In Parts and Maggi Dawn have been blogging about confession, repentance, and forgiveness. That conversation got me thinking about something I did while I was being interviewed and auditioned for the parish post I have now (for the moment, anyway). As part of that process, I was asked to do a retreat for the high school youth group on sexuality.

In situations like that, most of the youth pastors I knew did “object lessons” like this one: you give each of two or more teams a tube of toothpaste, and you tell them that the object of the game is to get all of the toothpaste out of the tube. Once the tubes are empty, you give them all toothpicks, and tell them that the first team to get the toothpaste back in the tube wins.  They try for a while, and eventually concede that it's impossible. And then the youth pastor says, “Aha! And that's what losing your virginity is like; once you lose it, you can never, ever put all of that mess back in the tube.”

This made me want to retch. Come on ... you think that the God who created the universe, that the Christ at whose name every knee -- in heaven and on earth and under the earth -- is powerless to bring healing if a fifteen-year-old does something foolish on Prom night? I came up with a different activity.

As part of the liturgy of the Eucharist, I invited the group to write on little scraps of paper things for which they sought God's transformation, and to fold up the pieces of paper; I told them that nobody would look at what they had written. I collected the scraps in a large metal bowl and burned them, and then I mixed the ashes in with a pot of white finger paint that was on the altar, at which everyone said, “gross!”

There were other pots of finger paints of various colors on the altar, and the group was then invited to use all of them to make a large mural. At first, everyone said, “Do we have to use the gross one?” but then they got into it, and it was really something. The ashes were in there, and so were all of the colors. People painted their own stories, but also started connecting what they were doing with what others were doing.

So the things they were embarrassed about and sought God's transformation for were in there. You could see the lumpy grey paints in the mix. But they were there in a much larger context, and it was really, really beautiful. The group found the experience so meaningful that they decided to put the painting up on the sanctuary wall behind the altar for Youth Sunday that spring.

To me, that's a lot more like life. Things that we do, whether helpful and healing or foolish and destructive, are out there. It will never be like those things never happened; they are a part of who we are. But it's not like the toothpaste “object lesson,” which suggests that there's no such thing as healing after a mistake.

It's true that we can't erase the past. Forgiveness is not erasure, but REDEMPTION. There's nothing that's so ugly, awful, or toxic that God can't being transformation, building a larger context, a bigger picture which is fundamentally a testament to what's beautiful and just about the world, and the beauty and justice of the God who made it. In the end, our lives -- foolishness, wounds, and all -- are a part of the story of God's love and redemption of the world.

April 15, 2005 in Churchiness, Youth Ministry | Permalink


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What a cool activity.
On a less related note, when you started describing the toothpaste activity, I thought "ooh! I know this one" and then you went somewhere totally different than I k now. (And ew) Just to redeem the toothpaste event (at least for me), I participated in a team captain workshop (all the captains of sports in the athletic conference did this leadership retreat) and one of the coaches had a tube of toothpaste and had each student squeeze some of it out onto a plate, and then asked them to try to get it all (every little bit) back in. Of course, they couldn't. She likened the toothpaste to gossip....once it's out, you can get a little back in, but there's always some that you can't get back in the tube. It was actually effective (and considerably less traumatizing).

Posted by: PPB | Apr 16, 2005 11:38:38 PM

Thanks, PPB. I like the toothpaste activity much better when it's about gossip, rather than "sexual purity."

Posted by: Sarah Dylan Breuer | Apr 17, 2005 1:28:38 PM

Wow! That's just brilliant. I love liturgy that connects to real life that connects to God (which IS real life) that connects to...well, you get the idea. Brilliant. God makes beautiful stuff of our weakness. We're all a little bumpy with some ashes in there, but we're all God's got in this world.

Posted by: Marie | Apr 18, 2005 10:47:07 PM

What a beautiful activity. How fortunate your congregants are to have a thoughtful and creative pastor in you! (I can't believe that toothpaste story, btw.)

Posted by: YelloCello | Apr 21, 2005 11:49:03 AM

...I think I might cry.
This has helped me sooo much. I lost my virginity recently and I don't know what to do with myself. I HAD wanted to wait, and had even made the true love waits promise, but screwed it up, and now I'm...well, the way I am. What's done is done, but all I could think of is, is God REALLY going to forgive me for this? If this present thing with my boyfriend doesn't work out, is there still a better life/picture out there??? How awful do I look to him. All I see is condemnation condemnation condemnation, and I know if my friends or anybody found out, all I'd get are dirty looks and tisks. Just thinking about all this I felt worthless. But this excercise touches home for me. And is starting my way as we speak to look back to God and call out. Thank you so much for this article.

You've helped me more than you will ever know.


Posted by: Rain | Jun 22, 2005 11:32:47 PM

This is such a great idea. I've used a liturgy of stones--leaving and offering whatever weighs us down on the Holy Table for transformation. But the painting exercise/liturgy symbolizes the actual transformation after the offering, with us as partners in that transformation/transfiguration. I like it a lot. Thanks.

Posted by: Barbara Smith-Moran | Aug 11, 2006 12:05:59 PM

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